La vie d’Adèle

Recipient of the Palme d’Or this year (decided by a jury chaired by Stephen Spielberg, no less) La Vie d’Adele Chapitres 1 et 2 is an intense love story, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche.  If you get the chance to see it, you should.  It will be released in English speaking countries as Blue is the Warmest Colour.

The storyline is simple enough… high school girl (Adèle Exarchopoulos) meets art school girl (Léa Seydoux), they fall in love and go on to live an intense and ultimately turbulent relationship. In its simplest version, this scenario could have been summarised in a 20 minutes.  But Kechiche’s directorial gift is in depicting the texture of the interactions between people – the details conversations, the physicality of relationships.  In three hours of storytelling, there are very few slack moments.

There’s not a lot that I could say about the La Vie d’Adèle that hasn’t already been said in mainstream reviews. First of all, it’s not a lesbian film, it is indeed a love story. Everyone I’ve spoken to who has seen the film has praised its “realism”… and the depictions of various social milieux of modern France is particularly well-observed. Whether filming a spaghetti bolognaise dinner in the suburbs, a garden party of the Parisian intello-artistic in-crowd, or the petty politics of student life in a lycée, Kechiche and his actors deliver a deep, absorbing experience that feels “true” in the smallest details.

Ultimately, the magnificent performances by Exarchopoulos and Seydoux are the reason that this film works so well. Adèle Exarchopoulos provides a compelling central character, whose naïvity and passionate love for Emma (Seydoux) drives this film forward. This is an impressive piece of cinema a headlong plunge into love and obsession that you won’t forget anytime soon.

Two Cars, One Night

There were plans to write some big old posts about Easter and music this weekend, but got busy, then distracted, then got writer’s block (well, that’s my excuse). But I did enjoy rediscovering Taika Waititi‘s first short film, Two Cars, One Night.

Made in 2003, the film shows the story of a girl and two boys meeting outside a rural pub while their parents are drinking inside.

The film was nominated for an Academy Award, which in hindsight seems a remarkable achievement for a film made in the pub carpark in Te Kaha, featuring two old cars and inpenetrable Maori English accents.

Apparently Taika Waititi’s new feature film Boy is doing very well in the cinemas in its home country. It mines similar themes and settings to Two Cars, One Night, extending them into a full-length story of a family growing up on the East Coast of the North Island, and features music by The Phoenix Foundation and, of course, Patea Maori Club’s Poi E, the greatest song of the 1980s except for Michael Jackson…

I wonder if it’ll make it to cinemas in Paris, and what French audiences will think ?

The White Ribbon

Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon feels and looks like a return to an earlier era of European cinema. From a visual and narrative standpoint, the film recalls the work of Bergman and Tarkovsky in the 1960s and 1970s, and much of its power comes from its recourse techniques of these masters.

The use of black and white,  the juxtaposition of claustrophobic interiors against the vast open plains of northern Europe and the fine-grained focus on characters faces are a  hommage to Sven Nykvist, the cinematographer for many of Bergman’s films and for the last act of Tarkovsky’s career (The Sacrifice, 1986). Indeed, Haneke’s cameraman Christian Berger studied Nykvist’s work in preparation for filming The White Ribbon.

While it could be argued that Tarkovsky and Bergman used film to explore psychological or spiritual themes, The White Ribbon is by contrast a tale of sociology and politics.

To take just one example, the severe Protestant pastors in Bergman’s works serve to lay bare the impossibility of belief in God, whereas in The White Ribbon, the pastor (alongside the village baron and the doctor) is portrayed as the agent of a sick society where absolute truths are used to dominate through fear.

Haneke has been quite explicit about the message of his film. He claims it as an exploration of the origins of terrorism in all its forms. Haneke’s village of Eichwald is haunted by repression, abuse and violence of all imaginable varieties. It’s matrix of sadism, deliberate and unintentional, in which children and adults alike are victims and participants.

Ostensibly The White Ribbon is a film about Germany. By setting this story in 1913 and 1914, the viewer knows that the children in this film are the generation who will, as adults, oversee the rise of Nazism twenty years later. Just as the feudalism of Eichwald dissolves in paroxysms of fear and recrimination, so the seeds are sown for new forms of control and repression that will follow.

Hannah Arendt invented the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe how easily violence and tyranny can become a commonplace among men. With The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke has provided us a sharply-focused (and, yes, beautiful) vision of Arendt’s words come to life.

Prolog

When I found this on YouTube, I knew I had to post it… it’s the opening sequence of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. I’ve never seen a film quite like it before or since, and the first 7 minutes set the mood perfectly – mysterious, subtle and playful, drawing you into Alexander’s world.

Alexander is played by Bertil Guve, and Grandma Ekdahl by Gunn Wållgren (who was suffering terminal cancer throughout the filming). The music at the start is the 2nd movement of Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat, Op. 44.

Looking for nazis, finding turkeys

At the end of the late screening of Inglourious Basterds on Wednesday night, the cinema erupted into applause. Now, maybe it’s a strange French custom that I hadn’t come across before, or perhaps the room happened to be full of rabid mordus de Tarantino that evening. But quite simply, the film didn’t deserve it.


Diane Kruger contemplates the flammable possibilities of nitrate filmstock

First of all, I’m not going to criticise Inglourious Basterds for being ahistorical.  The film is set in a fairy tale world that happens to bear a very passing resemblence to occupied France. It’s a little like watching Hogans Heroes and ‘Allo ‘Allo simultaneously, but with gruesome screen violence added in. I can accept this -because  if you’re incapable of suspending disbelief during a Tarantino flick, then don’t bother watching.

But Inglourious Basterds simply makes very little sense as a story. Tarantino is a master of slick and innovative narrative. But this film shambles along in overly long and occasionally irrelevant episodes, linked by massive leaps of logic that are neither explained nor plausible (yes, you can place your story inside an ultraviolent comic-book, but the story still needs to fit together).

Brad Pitt should be scalped for his performance, although the script gives him very little to work with. In fact, the script is mostly lumpen, although there is some post-modern fun to be had with  dialogue that transitions glibly between German, English and French (and occasionally Italian – providing Pitt’s only golden moment).

There some bright spots – a couple of scenes remind us of the tension and black humour of which Tarantino is capable. And the show is stolen by the European actors – Christoph Waltz struts around as a zealous and slightly camp jew-hunting Nazi, and Mélanie “Standing In for Uma” Laurent plays a convincing French-Jewish maiden bent on revenge.

War Films 101: A British officer in a German uniform is just asking for trouble…

Mr Tarantino is lumbered with a reputation based on his classic early films,  setting a high standard that is hard to live up to.  He is a genius – growing up in the 90s, I had to sneak in underage to see Pulp Fiction, the one totemic film of my teenagehood. And I had a Reservoir Dogs poster on my bedroom wall for many years (thanks Cameron!).

With Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino may have been trying to make a grand statement about cinema, fiction and history (the climactic scene certainly suggests so, as does Philip French). Tarantino doesn’t completely fail, but most of the time it seems like he’s just made an occasionally diverting film full of silly accents.


Yeah, you see, I told you so…

Revisiting Kurt Cobain

Eyes

Growing up in Auckland in the early and mid-1990s, it seemed that most of my friends had pictures of Kurt Cobain on their bedroom walls. An interest in ‘artistic tragedy’ and a fascination with death seemed to go hand in hand with our suburban adolesence. For earlier generations, it might have been Jim Morrison or Ian Curtis on those bedroom posters. But for teenagers of our vintage, Kurt Cobain was the musician-who-died who most fully embodied the angst and anger of growing up.

What goes around comes around. Alongside continuing economic slowdown, it seems safe to bet that the next couple of years will see a revival of interest in the late 80s-early 90s Seattle scene of which Cobain and Nirvana were the spearhead. Before long the kids’ll be wearing plaid shirts again. Just watch.

The signs are there… just in time for Christmas is launched Charles R. Cross’s new book Kurt Cobain Unseen (produced with the cooperation of the Cobain estate) featuring images and objects drawn from Cobain’s short life.

Lumberyard

Possibly more evocative and accessible for the non-obsessive is AJ Schnack’s documentary Kurt Cobain: About a Son, which is based on 25 hours of taped interviews with journalist Michael Azerrad, recorded in late 1992 and early 1993. The documentary weaves together excerpts from the conversations with images filmed around the towns Washington state that feature in Cobain’s life: Aberdeen, Olympia and Seattle.

Just as the documentary does not feature Cobain’s face (a deliberate directorial decision), the soundtrack avoids using any Nirvana material. Cobain was a constant champion of relatively obscure rock acts like The Vaselines, Meat Puppets and Butthole Surfers, and the soundtrack reflects this taste.

I remember a conversation I had years ago with a musician friend about how Kurt Cobain was, essentially, a writer of pop songs – one of the reasons that the Nevermind album succeeds is that it’s unrelentingly catchy. It’s all hooks and simple song-forms, like Thriller but with angst and a fuzzbox.

At one point in the documentary, when describing his love for Glasgow band The Vaselines, Cobain talks of his desire to write pop songs. Listening to the Vaselines again (Nirvana recorded three of their songs during their career), you can hear that pop music soul coming through.

Thanks to the realities of media and merchandising, Kurt Cobain has become a legend cruelly divorced from his real life story. His music will always be stained with the knowledge of his untimely death. But hopefully a film like About a Son will help remind us that people like Kurt Cobain are just ordinary people with ordinary stories. The only difference between them and us is the heat of the spotlight.

Interview House

Son of Rambow

Rambow

Son of Rambow is one of those small, low-budget British films that might have disappeared without trace, had it not been for a rave reception at Sundance 2007. The film subsequently obtained significant distribution in the UK and worldwide this year.

It’s a little film, in the sense that it aims to tell a simple story well, rather than investing energy in exploring deep themes or symbolism. And it’s precisely this lack of ambition that makes Son of Rambow work. Viewers will either find this absence of guile either endearing or intensely annoying.

The basic plot is simple enough. It’s southern England in about 1983. Lee Carter (an Artful Dodger of the home counties, a bully and latchkey kid who lives in a retirement home with his older brother while his parents live in Spain) is making his own version of Rambo:First Blood. He ropes in naive, timid Will Proudfoot to act as stuntman, but Will’s imagination is soon unleashed, and once French exchange student Didier Revol and his admirers invade the project, chaos ensues.

But movie-making is not the heart of the film. In fact the only thing that prevents Son of Rambow exploding in a crayon-coloured fireball of implausibility is the unlikely friendship that develops between Will and Lee .

Will has grown up in a stern, restrictive Brethren household and Lee’s makeshift film finally offers an outlet for Will’s creativity. And Lee, a bully who is unpopular at school and deeply seeks approval from his older brother, finds Will to be the first person who doesn’t judge or manipulate him. The relationship is portrayed with sensitivity and naturalness by first-time actors Bill Milner and Will Poulter.

Sometimes the shallowness of the rest of the film lets us down. For instance, the implications of life in the Plymouth Brethren are not explored in great detail. And while Jules Sitruk plays Didier as a fantastically louche teen heartthrob, (a French Fonzie?), it is implied that Didier is much less popular back home in France – tension in his character that remains tantalisingly vague.

Despite its lightness of touch, Son of Rambo is hardly a movie for kids – it’s an adult’s recollection of what it was like to be a young in the 1980s. In this fantasy world you can perform aerial stuntwork in an abandoned power station, shoplift without sanction, and turn your 6th Form Common Room into a debauched New-Wave disco. Of course childhood was never quite like this, but for 90 minutes it’s good fun to pretend that it was.

In My Father’s Den

I have finally seen In My Father’s Den, and it was a shame that I waited until the DVD release, rather than seeing it in the cinema. I think it is a completely stunning film, and does full justice to the novel by Maurice Gee.

The intrigue of the film reveals itself in a slow and measured way. What starts as a story about the return of a (prodigal?) son to his hometown after years overseas prompted by his father’s death, becomes a rumination on the pain of confronting our past. The mystery deepens when a key character disappears, and it is only at the end of the film that we find out just how close together all the protagonists are bound.

For New Zealanders, it is easy to view this as an archtypal kiwi film. There are certainly aspects of this work that will resonate strongly with a native audience: the need to escape our islands, the sense of landscape, the particular characters in the community, and the accents of the actors. For kiwis of a certain age, there is even a “Dougal Stevenson” moment.

Director Brad McGann (currently battling cancer again) has done a great job capturing the landscape of inland Otago, and reflecting the culture of a small town in New Zealand’s South Island. But this is a film that anyone, anywhere will enjoy. Beautiful to look at, and genuinely moving.

I know there are many non-NZ readers of this blog. If your experience of NZ cinema begins and ends with Peter Jackson, this film is well worth seeking out.

Crowded House – She Goes On
From Woodface: Capitol 793559 [Buy]

Gorillas, Demystified

There was no shortage of self-interest in hurrying to see Peter Jackson’s King Kong last night. Sure, there was a modicum of national duty, for this is a kiwi movie (OK, apart from minor factors like big-name American actors and Universal Studios finance and distribution).

But the main reason I was eager to see this film was because I am in it. Briefly and insignificantly. In the New York theatre where Kong is displayed as a captured trophy before a dumbfounded audience, there is an orchestra. There’s a trumpet player (one of several) flinching in the side of a wide shot as Kong roars and threatens to break his shackles. Yes, that’s me. 3 pixels of Hollywood immortality. The Central Warhol Agency will now have to deduct several milliseconds off my 15 minutes.

So what did I think of the film? Well, it’s a big, dumb, monster flick. At heart Peter Jackson is a horror fan. Give him a threadbare plot like Kong, and Mr Jackson will fill it with gratuitous dinosaurs, giant bats, spiders, carnivorous worms and giant cave wetas (yes that’s wetas, not “vampire crickets” as the New York Times put it. Come to NZ sometime and see some.)

If you haven’t seen the film yet, I’m not spoiling it by saying that by the end you’ll be cheering for the gorilla. The magnificent metaphor of the beast atop the skyscraper, defiance amidst the concrete jungle, is all the more poignant for the fact that the most human character in this movie is the ape himself.

And one day, I’ll be able to tell my grandkids (or somebody’s grandkids) that once, I got paid by Universal Pictures to dress up in a tuxedo, pretend to play my instrument, and then run away terrified from a big digital monkey.

Bergman for a Rainy Saturday

You’d have to be either intensely stupid or immensely ambitous to decide on impulse to rent and watch 5 hours of Ingmar Bergman, having never seen a Bergman film before in your life. But it looks like it’s going to rain all weekend. Work has drained you of the desire to worship at the Turnaround with Manuel Bundy at Rising Sun, or check out Senor Cesar at Galatos, or Isaac and Kelly K blowing at Khuja. (Hell, even Scribes of Ra and the united forces of Wellington and Auckland Batucada couldn’t get me out last Saturday night. I’m such a slacker). So. You rent Fanny and Alexander, and get blown away.

F&A is a moving and expansive film. Although set almost exclusively within the confines of two bourgeois families in Sweden in the early 20th Century, F&A is impressive in its sweep, conflating issues of power in marriage, family politics, faith, the nature of theatre, death, childhood and immorality into an epic that drew me in completely. Who cares that it takes 5 hours and two DVDs to get there?

Bergman’s experience in live theatre is evdient throughout in the timing and rhythm of the scenes, the balance of dialogue, and the deliberate placement (blocking?) of actors within the camera frame. This film contains depiction of some of the most complex emotion I’ve ever seen in cinema. (I would have to see some more of his films to confirm whether this is a Bergman trademark). Perhaps the best example is the laughable to-ing and fro-ing between the childrens’ uncle Carl and Helena, his wife from Munich. Their interactions swing within the space of seconds from physical revulsion to pathetic mutual fawning. Utterly extraordinary to watch two actors grapple with this incredibly difficult material, and make it convincing.

The children’s stepfather, the austere protestant Bishop Vergerus, dominates the action of the second half of the film. What motivates him to treat his new wife and stepchildren with such chilling and cruel indifference? Is it a firm conviction in the righteousness of his particular interpretation of Christianity? Does Vergerus truly act out of “love”, as he tells Alexander as he beats him and locks him in the attic? Is it a desire for power and order in his household? Is it some kind of sadistic psychosis? Is he genuinely in love with Emilie? I’m not sure if any of this is truly elaborated, nevertheless the portrayal of the Bishop by Jan Malmsjö.

Special mention must be made of the kids playing the titular roles of Fanny and Alexander. The character of Fanny remains something of a hollow shell, since most of the key action is viewed from Alexander’s perspective (Alexander operates in this film as an analog for Bergman himself.) But her apparent strength and impassivity in the face of death, imprisonment and abuse provides a foil to the often emotional Alexander. Here’s a ten year old who goes to pieces as he approaches his father on his deathbed, speaks to ghosts (no it’s not a European T6S) and is beaten by his stepfather for failing to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

Apparently there’s a 5 disc F&A box set coming out in November, including the original cinematic release, the 5 hour edited-for-Swedish-TV version and the making-of doco Dokument Fanny och Alexander. Yoiks. I may have to clear the decks on my credit card.

I think I’ll have to rent some more Bergman sometime, and hope that it lives up to my assessment of F&A….